Glory & Defeat Week 2: First Fighting and Casualties

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: France officially declares war on Prussia, and the first shots of a war that would change European history are fired in anger:

Hi, I'm Jesse Alexander and welcome to Glory and Defeat, the story of the Franco-Prussian War. Last week, Otto von Bismarck manipulated the Ems Dispatch to insult France and draw them into a war. It worked, and now the French are ready to make it official.

On July 19, 1870, the North German Confederation’s parliament meets in Berlin for an emergency session about the imminent war. King Wilhelm I opens the session with defiance:
“Following the example of our fathers, we will fight for our freedom and for our righteousness against the violence of foreign conquerors, and in this struggle, in which we pursue no other goal than to permanently secure the peace of Europe, God will be with us as He was with our fathers.“ (Fontane, 57f.)
At 2:00 PM the French declaration of war arrives. The Imperial French Government accuses Prussia of trying to upset the balance of power in Europe by putting one of its own on the Spanish throne, and of insulting its honor with the Ems Dispatch. The result is war:
“Consequently, the French Government considered itself obligated to provide without delay for the defense of its honor and its injured interests. Determined for this final purpose to take all the measures offered to it by the situation created, it considers itself from now on to be in a state of war with Prussia (en état de guerre avec la Prusse).” (Fontane 84f.)
The declaration of war is announced to parliament after the King finishes speaking. Emotions are running high in Prussia, not least because July 19 is the 60th anniversary of the death of King Wilhelm’s mother Luise, who enjoys cult-like reverence in the kingdom. The next day, the parliament responds with an impassioned message to the King:
“We trust in God, who punishes bloody outrages. From the shores of the sea to the foot of the Alps, the people have risen up at the unanimous call of their princes. No sacrifice is too great for them. The public voice of the civilized world recognizes the justice of our cause. […] The German people will finally achieve the peaceful and free unification valued by all peoples at the place of its choosing. Your Majesty and the allied German governments may consider us and our brothers in the south ready. Our honor and our freedom are at stake. Es gilt unsere Ehre und unsere Freiheit.” (Fontane, 60)
King Wilhelm I is less enthusiastic about war than his parliament. Despite his age, he’d only fought two wars, and did not want this one now – and he belatedly recognizes how Bismarck and the Duc de Gramont each had their own agendas for bringing it about.
Prussian Karl Marx also takes a more sober view of events than many of his countrymen who are caught up in the war frenzy. He wants a Prussian victory, but for reasons different than those of many other Prussians:
"Die Franzosen brauchen Prügel. The French need a beating. If the Prussians win, the centralization of state power will be useful to the centralization of the German working class. The German preponderance will also shift the center of gravity of the West European working-class movement from France to Germany [and] the German working class is theoretically and organizationally superior to the French.” (Bebel/Bernstein 296)

The die has been cast, and the Franco-Prussian War has begun. The princes of the German states prepare to defend their national honor, and in France, Emperor Napoleon III prepares to defend that of France.

The French Empire is also preparing for the start of the fighting. On July 23, Napoleon III issues a dramatic proclamation to the nation:

“There are solemn moments in the life of a people when national honor, violently aroused, imposes itself as an irresistible force, dominates all interests, and takes in hand the direction of the destiny of la Patrie. [...] We are not making war on Germany, whose independence we respect. We wish that the peoples who make up the great Germanic nationality freely determine their destinies; as for us, we demand the establishment of a state of affairs which guarantees our security and assures the future [....].” (Napoléon)

The French authorities see their cause as just and are trying to win over the other European powers. But public opinion has turned against France, which doesn’t have any allies. In 1868 and 1869 there had been talks with Italy and Austria about potential alliances, but no treaty has been signed in 1870. Napoleon III does have letters from Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and Italian King Vittorio Emanuele II, in which they promised not to negotiate with third parties without French consent. The French emperor sees these letters as an expression of a moral obligation to help France in case of a war, but the governments in Vienna and the Italian capital of Florence disagree.
Serious talks do take place in July 1870 between France, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, and they don’t go well. The Italians demand passage through Austria to attack Bavaria, but the Austrians refuse. If it enters the war, Italy also wants France to end its protection of independent Rome and the Pope, so that Italy can annex Rome and make it the country’s capital. But the Church is a pillar of support for the Second Empire, so the French aren’t in a hurry to abandon the Papacy. Plus, the French feel that Italy still owes them for French assistance in the Sardinian War of 1859, so they won’t make the Rome deal the way Italy wants it.
Austria-Hungary is hesitant about fighting on the French side for a few reasons. The government is worried about the many German-speakers in the empire who are sympathetic to the so-called German cause against France. The Austro-Hungarians also fear that if they intervene, Russia might come in on the Prussian side. This is not so far-fetched, since King Wilhelm is the Tsar’s uncle. Russia might also decide to join Prussia because the Prussians offered to help the Tsar against Polish rebels back in 1863.
The United Kingdom stays out of the war as well. Relations with France have been strained since they fought together in the Crimean War, and Queen Victoria is the mother-in-law of the Prussian crown prince.
France does make a very ambitious plan with Denmark, which lost a war to Prussia and its allies in 1864. The idea is for a French expeditionary force to land on the North German coast or in Denmark, and advance into the North German Confederation alongside the weaker Danish army. But this plan also falls through after Britain and Russia pressure the Danes to remain neutral. France is now fighting the largest army in Europe alone.

While the French are canvassing Europe for allies but finding none, the mobilizations which started even before the declaration of war are bring troops to the battle zones.

Both the French and German armies feel prepared for war – but one is much larger. The Germans are moving about 460,000 men to the front, while the French figure is about 300,000. (Howard 60, 66)

Before the main forces reach the battlefields, skirmishes are already breaking out along the border. Mostly these are cavalry reconnaissance patrols, and they usually don’t get far.

On the 19th, French Chasseurs d'Afrique cross the Prussian border at Saarbrücken and capture some customs officers. The same day, the Prussians also take their first prisoner, a Zouave who had allegedly fallen asleep over white wine in an inn on the German side. The first official deaths of the war come on the 24th. A squadron of Baden dragoon officers led by Württemberg general staff officer and later airship inventor Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, runs into French troops at Schirlenhof. Claude Férréol Pagnier, quartermaster in the 12th Mounted Chasseurs, and William Herbert Winsloe, lieutenant in the 3rd Baden Dragoons, are both killed – the first men to die in this war, though it’s possible that a few French soldiers have already been killed. 27-year-old Winsloe is from Scotland, ironically making a British native the first fallen 'German'.

This week the French declare war on Prussia but fail to find any allies, there’s nationalist rhetoric on both sides, and the Franco-Prussian War claims its first lives. Those two men have died because the diplomats, generals, and politicians have allowed themselves to rush into war. These elites have used emotional terms like nation and honor to stir the passions of the people and manipulate the press. At this point, the storm they have unleashed is beyond the control of even Napoleon III and Wilhelm I. And next week, the storm will only grow stronger.


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  • Arand, Tobias/ Bunnenberg, Christian (Hrsg.): Karl Klein. Fröschweiler Chronik. Kriegs- und Friedensbilder aus dem Krieg 1870. Kommentierte Edition. Hamburg 2021
  • Bourguinat, Nicolas/Vogt, Gilles: La guerre franco-allemande de 1870. Une histoire globale. Paris 2020
  • Howard, Michael: The Franco-Prussian War. London 1961
  • Milza, Pierre: L‘année terrible. La guerre franco-prussienne septembre 1870 – mars 1871. Paris 2009


  • Becker, Josef (Hrsg.): Bismarcks spanische «Diversion« 1870 und der preußisch-deutsche Reichsgründungskrieg. Bd. III. Paderborn, München, Wien, Zürich 2003
  • Bebel, August/Bernstein, Eduard (Hrsg.): Der Briefwechsel zwischen Friedrich Engels und Karl Marx. Bd. IV. Stuttgart 1921
  • Fontane, Theodor: Krieg gegen Frankreich, Bd. 1. Berlin 1873
  • Napoléon III: Proclamation de l’Empereur. Paris, 23. Juillet 1870

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